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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I crawled out of bed at 9:00 am after sleeping for twelve hours. Boredom along with feeling slightly out of control can be exhausting.
Maybe feeling rested was enough motivation to make me take another shot at exploring Lampang. After a breakfast of soy milk and crackers, I asked the guest house to call for a sawng tae ou.
"This one speaks English," he assured me.
I had learned something from the previous day's frustrations. Not only are there no tuk tuks in this small town, there aren't any sawng tae ous or horse carts hanging around the Buddhist temples like in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. And, if a sawng tae ou does come by, there's a good chance the driver won't speak English.
Today I would not only get a driver with whom I could communicate, but I would hire him for the whole day. When he arrived after only a few minutes, I asked him, "Tao rai?(how much?) for driving me to the teak mansion, a stop at a bank, Wat Si Rong Meuang and then the Riverside Bar for dinner?"
"600 baht," he replied.
"Peng mak(very expensive)," I blurted out.
"No, that's a fair price," the guest house owner said.
I knew on the one hand that 600 baht was equal to maybe $20 US. You can't get a cab in Chicago for half an hour at that price. On the other hand, I'd been taking taxis, tuk tuks and sawng tae ous in Thailand since 1994, and that amount sounded exorbitant by Thai standards.
"OK," I replied after realizing that I didn't have many options.
Baan Sao Nak, a one hundred old teak mansion once owned by a khun ying (aristocratic lady), was an interesting window into the lives of the privileged class in northern Thailand who grew wealthy from the teak trade a hundred years ago. I also saw my first horse carts parked outside, which was fun.
The next stop was Siam Commercial Bank where I intended to exchange a hundred dollars for baht. "Sip natee (ten minutes)," I told the driver and entered the bank's lobby. My turn came after five minutes and I handed over my debit card and the requisite passport before filling out the usual paper work. Five minutes passed. Then ten, and then twenty. I couldn't understand what the teller was saying to her supervisor.
Finally, after half an hour, someone who spoke English told me that their computer was down and asked if I could come back later. I wasn't surprised. I had experienced delays in Thailand caused by technological malfunctions many times before. Irritated is a better word. Why did they wait half an hour to tell me? This frustration was not part of my plans.
Responding to the puzzled look on my driver's face, I said simply, "Computer," and he nodded with understanding.
The next stop was the Burmese style Buddhist temple called Wat Si Rong Meuang. As my sawng tae ou pulled inside the gate, my spirit lifted. This wat was different. There was still some construction going on in the main wihan, and I enjoyed watching the skilled artisans at work.
I asked the driver to stop at another bank after leaving the temple. This time I was in and out in ten minutes. A five minute ride through Lampang to the Mae Wang River and I was dropped off at the Riverside Bar with the understanding that my driver would return to get me at 7:00 pm. It was the middle of the afternoon.
The Riverside is a teak building with its open air dining area overlooking the Mae Wang. The place was empty except for two servers chatting at a table. I pointed to a spot by the wooden railing, and one of the servers nodded. I set my back pack on the floor, sat down and in a few minutes I was sipping the iced coffee I had ordered.
To my surprise, a feeling of well being washed over me. Less than a day before I had been bored. This day had gone a little better than the day before, but there had been bumps in this day's road as well. For some reason the solitude today felt comfortable.
Maybe it was the ambience. The Mae Wang right below me meandering downstream. An occasional motorbike or car passing along the opposite bank but nothing like the traffic in the big cities. The trees and the chedi of a temple reflected in the water. The clip clop of horses on the street outside. The chirping of a gecko. A place in the shade with a pleasant breeze
Maybe it was that functioning in another culture is hard work—not knowing well the language, the subtle cues, the etiquette—and that it was a relief to be away from the challenge and rest for awhile.
Or maybe it was just the natural ebb and flow of life. Sometimes I'm feeling up and sometimes I'm feeling down, and sometimes I can't figure out why. It, as they say, just is.
I opened the spiral stenographers notebook I was using as my journal and began to write. The images and stories, the emotions just poured out of me. In stark contrast to the night before, I wished that I had ten hours alone in this place instead of four.
Also unlike the night before, I found myself to be an interesting companion. Back and forth the conversation went between me and myself.
"Wasn't that temple interesting?"
"Can't wait to show pictures of it to friends back home."
"Why do you think we got so irritated when the bank employees took so long to tell us about the computer? We should know by now that that sort of things happens here."
"I'm not sure."
"What would the Buddha say?"
"What would Jesus do?"
The questions without easy answers weren't frustrating as I sat in the quietness of the Riverside Bar. I didn't need answers, because that day I felt like I was with two companions I loved and who loved me. In some ways, it didn't matter what we talked about. People falling in love often communicate without saying a word. My church sometimes calls relating like that communion. Martin Buber called it an I-thou relationship.
One translation of Luke's gospel says that after experiencing the conception and birth of Jesus, the flight to Egypt and the boyhood of Jesus, Mary pondered these things in her heart. No need to analyze. No urgency to figure them out. Simply turning them over and over in her mind, like she was letting them soak into her spirit like a gentle spring rain percolates into the earth and adds to the aquifer deep below the surface.
I just let the feelings and impressions tumble out into the notebook, looking up frequently at the river, feeling the peacefulness, not wanting to be anywhere else in the world.
I have a daily devotions book at home called Touchstones (M.A.F., Hazelden). Several of the meditations in it are on solitude. Following are some quotes:
Often it is not the events in our lives that bring change
but the space between the events. (April 14)
Spiritual progress is made by pushing aside busyness and
efficiency. . . .We become receptive to inspiration, to a
deeper wisdom, to that part of life which we do not command. (May 9)
The message comes in our solitude, when our defenses
against truth are set aside. It comes popping out without
our planning it. Our solitude is a relationship with ourselves... (July 20)
I thought back to my peaceful hours on Kampan's porch. Unlike yesterday, today's solitude produced a surge of well being in which I felt comfortable with myself as my companion. Not only was I content being with myself, but I also felt like the two men on the road to Emmaus who, after walking for hours with Jesus without recognizing him, suddenly realized who he was and that he had been with them all along.
On one day being alone can produce boredom.
On another day loneliness.
And on the next day deeper contact with myself and God.
We cannot create profound stillness. We can allow it.
We can move into it. We can receive it. Many of us have been
frightened by such a stillness because we are not familiar
with the spiritual moment. . . .It is contact with God. (March 19)
On this day, I had no need of a book to entertain me.